Hidden East Anglia:
Landscape Legends of Eastern England
QUEST FOR TOM HICKATHRIFT
Part 4 - The Origins of Tom
(For references, see Part 5).
As far as the coffin and the slab go, we can surely never know whom they covered – but what about the elaborate lid? ‘Kelly’s Directory’ of 1925 says the tomb is of “the Saxon giant Hycathrift, who accompanied Richard Coeur de Lion on the crusades”. This is almost as bad as claiming that Tom was a Knight Templar, but it at least gives us a clue.
gives us a reasonable name to go with the coffin lid: “Probably the tomb
is that of Sir Frederick de Tylney, who was renowned for his great
strength and stature. He was knighted by Richard 1, whilst fighting in the
Holy Land. Though killed at Acre, the knight’s body was brought home for
interment”. If we put Kelly’s and Hillen’s remarks together, we get
the result that Hickathrift = Sir Frederick de Tylney – but it isn’t
as simple as that!
1814 Sir Francis Palgrave29 writes: “Mr. Thomas Hickathrift,
afterwards Sir Thomas Hickathrift, knight, is praised by Mr. Thomas Hearne
as a ‘famous champion’. The honest antiquary has identified this
well-known knight with the far less celebrated Sir Frederick de Tylney,
Baron of Tylney in Norfolk, the ancestor of the Tylney family, who was
killed at Acon (Acre) in Syria, in the reign of Richard Coeur de Lion.
Hycophric or Hycothrift, as the mister-wight observes, being probably a
corruption of Frederick. This happy exertion of etymological acumen is not
wholly due to Hearne, who only adopted a hint given by Mr. Peter Le Neve,
whileome of the College of Arms”.
Gomme in 1884 added the comment: “There does not seem to be the
slightest evidence for Hearne’s identification any more than there is
for his philological conclusions...” Thomas Hearne lived from 1678 to
1735, while Peter Le Neve, a prolific and thorough antiquary, was born in
1661, and died in 1729. I’ve as yet been unable to track down the
precise sources where either mentions Hickathrift.
the etymological transformation of ‘Frederick’ into ‘Hickathrift’
(or a variant) is indeed suspect, perhaps it should be noted that there is
some superficial resemblance: “Frederick – Old German Frithuric, a
compound of frithu ‘peace’ and ric ‘ruler’...occasionally found in
the 12th century, but on the whole uncommon until the 17th
century.”34 According to Camden, Frederick is a very early
name, “which hath been now a long time a Christian name in the ancient
family of Tilney, and lucky to their house as they report”.35
But exactly who was this Sir Frederick, and what influence has he had upon the growth of the Hickathrift legend?
Blomefield mentions an ancient book which had
once belonged to Sir Frederick de Tilney, and which in 1727 was in the
hands of the afore-mentioned Peter Le Neve. Blomefield took his extract
from Weever, and this was as far as I could go for quite some time. Now
I’ve found that Weever probably obtained his information from
Hakluyt’s 16th century ‘English Voyages’, where he says:
“This booke pertained in times past unto Sir Frederick Tilney, of
Boston, in the Countie of Lincolne, who was knighted at Acon (Acre) in the
land of Jurie, in the third yeere of the reigne of King Richard the first,
AD 1192. This knight was of a tall stature, and strong of body, who
resteth interred with his forefather at Tirrington (sic), neere unto a
towne in Marshland called by his own name Tilney. The just height of this
knight is there kept in safe custody until this very day”.36
sets in once more when we note that Hillen, Palgrave and Mee37
say that Sir Frederick was slain at the siege of Acre (which actually
ended in July 1191) and his body brought home, while Hakluyt (or rather
the lost ‘Tilney book’), Cox, Thompson38 and Rye also
casually add that he was buried at Terrington St. John in 1189, that is,
two years before he died! But whenever and however he died, if he was
buried at Terrington, then the Tilney coffin lid cannot be his. In fact,
Dr. Butler of Leeds University31 says that this lid is a mid-12th
century stone, and unlikely to be as late as the 1190s.
“The family of Tilney”, says Thompson38 “is of Norman origin, but derives its name from the Town of Tilney, in the county of Norfolk, and was one of the most ancient of knights’ degree in England”. The first of the family was one Frodo who came to this country just before the Conquest, and held many lordships in this area. His brother Baldwin later came to be the third Abbot of Bury St. Edmunds, while his great-grandson was the Sir Frederick involved here.
He was, says Thompson, “a man of
more than ordinary strength and stature, and had his chief residence at
Boston. He attended King Richard 1, anno 1190, into the Holy Land, was
with him at the siege of Acon, where he is said to have performed
prodigies of valour, and was there knighted for his services...”
written confirmation exists of his burial at either Terrington or Tilney,
I find it more than a strange coincidence that the same small area of the
Norfolk Marshland should hold both the traditions of a powerful, heroic
giant, and the record of an actual, historically large man famed for his
stature, his strength, and his “prodigies of valour”.
most incredible legend often has a germ of truth at its root, and in my
opinion Sir Frederick de Tilney is the likeliest basis upon which the
character and mythos of Tom Hickathrift have grown.
has however long been ignored in favour of other explanations. John Weever
drew a parallel between Tom’s defeat of the Landlord’s forces, and the
exploits of a 10th century Scot named Hay, forbear of the Earls
of Errol. Apparently, in the year 942, Hay and his two sons came upon a
battle between the Scots and the Danes, and to spur on his fainthearted
countrymen, took up an ox-yoke or a plough-beam and waded into the fray,
driving off the Danes in dismay, to the greater glory of King Kenneth 111
of Scotland. How historically true this tale may be I don’t know, but
the parallel with Hickathrift is obvious.
Skertchly in 1878 voice “the opinion of some of the people of Marshland
that the story is allegorical, that the giant whom Hickathrift subdued
represents the sea, the wheel and axle, the weapons for banking it out,
and that the name of Hickathrift is derived from ‘Hitch’ and
‘Thrive’; the hero then was some early encloser of the Fens who became
powerful by continually moving his banks further out...” While the last
part of that sentence bears thinking about, the etymology is rather
dubious – but I’ll come back to that.
Perhaps the favourite theory has been that Tom the giant is simply another form of the ancient sun god.
Dutt,40 who thought little of the idea, tells us that “there are ‘authorities’, made mad by too much learning, who would have us believe that Hickafric driving along in his cart is nothing more or less than a form of the sun-god; that the wheels and the axle are the symbols of the sun and its rays; and that the great fight between Hickafric and the invaders of the Smeeth is symbolic of the sun drying-up the waters of a great flood”.
Of this ilk was T. C. Lethbridge22
who speculated that Tom was a Celtic god of the Iceni people, from his
resemblance to Taranis ‘the thunderer’ whose symbol was the sacred
wheel, and who was equated with both Mars and Jupiter. His original name
being forgotten, the Saxons then called him ‘Hiccafrith’ - a name of
Lethbridge’s own invention - which he says (with what justification I do
not know) means “the trust of the Hiccas, or Iceni”. Lethbridge also
comes up with the notion (which appears nowhere in the tales) that Tom was
“humanised in the Middle Ages into a man who fought a Dane...” Gomme11
compares Tom’s exploits with those of the Scandinavian hero Grettir the
Strong, but derives parallels that are only superficial at best.
there’s little meat in the theories, let’s turn back to the question
of Tom’s name. For a start, “Thomas is found in England before the
Norman Conquest only as a priest’s name”,34 so he and his
father cannot have been born, as the chapbooks say, “in the reign before
William the Conqueror”. But his surname is a very different matter –
it is certainly unusual!
I’ve come across 17 different versions of Hickathrift, including
Hikifrick, Hikifrike, Hic-ka-thrift, Hycophric, Hicifric, Icklethrift and
Hycathrift. One would expect, in common or dialectal usage, a
transposition of those final consonants. Thus, Hickathrift should become
Hickafrith – but apart from Lethbridge’s invented ‘Hiccafrith’ –
this has not occurred. The printed version – which even as far back as
the Pepysian chapbook was Hickathrift – must have exerted wide
suggested derivation from ‘hitch’ and ‘thrive’ I find untenable, but I can
offer little in place of it. If we take the syllables separately, we have
first to deal with the stem ‘hick-‘ or ‘ick-‘, which is a
constant. If it does indeed originate with the tribal name ‘Iceni’, it
would be a rare survival indeed. Perhaps ‘hick’, a by-form of
‘Richard’, meaning a farmer or countryman. Or maybe ‘hycgan’, Old
English for ‘think’, or perhaps OE ‘ic’ meaning ‘I’. Then
again, ‘Hicel’, ‘Icel’, ‘Yecel’ and ‘Ica’ are all
well-attested Anglo-Saxon personal names.
As for the second syllable ‘-thrift’ or ‘-frick’, how about OE ‘þryccan’: ‘oppress’, or OE ‘fraec’: ‘bold, gluttonous’, or ‘frecne’: ‘terrible’, or even perhaps OE ‘þraec’ from Old Norse ‘þrekr’: ‘force, courage’. The possibilities are well nigh endless, but the justification for any of them, in any combination, is tenuous.
It is, I think, best to simply accept the name Hickathrift as curious (with perhaps a connection to ‘Frithuric/Frederick’), and leave it at that.
Before giving any conclusions, I have to mention one more site linked with Tom that, as with the tale of him kicking a ball from Beccles to Bungay, is decidedly way beyond the area that is normally his.
I refer to the plasterwork figures to be seen
on one of the many pargetted facades of the former ‘Sun Inn’ in Church
Street at Saffron Walden in Essex. The two figures, supposedly of Tom and
the Wisbech giant in conflict, are modelled in bold relief in the plaster,
part side view, part full-face.
Between them is a large raised ring, presumed to be the sun in the title of the former inn. Despite what tourists are always told, I have grave doubts that this scene is anything whatever to do with the Hickathrift legend. I can find no reference before the 1930s for the identification – indeed one source actually calls the figures ‘Gog and Magog’. Also, the figures as modelled do not match the tale of the chapbooks.
For one thing,
both effigies are portrayed as the same height, whereas the Wisbech ogre
was supposed to be about four feet taller than Tom. Also, although his
opponent wields the traditional heavy club, ‘Hickathrift’ is provided
with a sword and an ordinary, rather small, shield, rather than the wheel
and axle of the main legend.
The building dates from about the 16th century, but the pargetting is known to be at least a century later. The style of clothing given seems to fit anywhere between the 10th and 17th centuries. Just what or whom the scene might portray is anyone’s guess, but I suspect that the identification with the tales of Hickathrift is a relatively modern occurrence.